Isaac Deutscher 1962

Preface to Marcel Liebman, The Russian Revolution

Source: Preface to Marcel Liebman, The Russian Revolution: The Origins, Phases and Meaning of the Bolshevik Victory (Jonathan Cape, London, 1970). Scanned and prepared for the Marxist Internet Archive by Paul Flewers.

As the Russian Revolution passes into its second half-century few are those, even among its bitter enemies and opponents, who would still deny its world-historical impact and significance. This has clearly been the greatest formative event of the century, indeed the most momentous social-political upheaval since the French Revolution; in scope, vitality, and in the global range of its consequences it surpasses its French predecessor. Yet when a young worker or a student wants to find out how the Revolution happened, by what stages it developed, what were the factors that determined its outcome, who were the men and what were the ideas that inspired it, he is not able to find any brief, intelligible and reliable History that contains the answers to his questions. This is a curious circumstance which requires a few words of comment.

That the enemies of the Revolution have been unable to produce a coherent account of the events that shook Russia and the world in 1917 is hardly surprising. They have not yet recovered from the shock. Most often class prejudice, resentment and ignorance colour their views. And indeed if one does assume that a social order based on capitalist property is the natural order of things, or that reason and human nature alike require that mankind be ruled in the traditional way, if not by fascist dictators then by great generals or by ‘democratic’ élites, monarchical or republican, then of necessity one views the events of 1917 as an outrage against reason or human nature, an outrage committed by monstrous people and devils incarnate. In the stultifying atmosphere of the Cold War this view has indeed been assiduously advocated or insinuated in the West by innumerable writers and propagandists who see the upheaval of 1917 as the still active source of almost all the evils that have afflicted humanity ever since. In a way these writers and propagandists pay their unwitting tribute to the Revolution and testify that its challenge is still alive. Yet what they offer the public is never the actual story of the Revolution but merely a demonological travesty.

Unfortunately, our young intelligent reader does not find much help when he turns for enlightenment to writers of the Left, those whom he regards as friends of the Russian Revolution. He will find these too strangely uninformative and uninstructive, and their accounts of the Revolution cliché-ridden and lifeless, devoid of sociological depth and psychological truth and so producing a kind of Byzantine effect. M Louis Aragon’s recent History of the USSR is a striking example of this kind of literature. What is it, one may ask, that paralyses the imagination, understanding and power of expression of a writer of this calibre when he tries to cope with a theme which should, and on the face of it does, inspire him? The situation would be simple if one could merely say that M Aragon shares the lot of so many authors of Lives of Saints, authors among whom there were quite a few talented poets. The point is that the failure of M Aragon and of authors of his school of thought is not due merely to an innocent excess of devotion or to trop de zèle. The writers of official Communism have for so long purveyed the historical forgeries and myths produced by the Stalinist school of falsification that even when they have been free to jettison some of these, they have not been able to recapture and grasp the historical truth of the Revolution. Even in the era of the so-called de-Stalinisation they have still had to observe so many prohibitions and taboos, to slide over so many of the crucial events and to cover with silence the roles and even the names of so many leading actors, that the history of the Revolution has in fact been forbidden ground for them, forbidden and unknown ground. Even in this glorious jubilee year most of the revolutionary leaders of 1917 – Trotsky and Bukharin, Zinoviev and Kamenev, Rykov and Tomsky, and many, many others – are still unmentionable in Moscow or are mentioned only as evil influences; and now it is a requirement of bon ton to ignore even Stalin. What would we say of ‘historians’ who tried to relate to us the French Revolution without describing the roles or even mentioning the names of Danton and St Just, of Desmoulins, Hébert, Cloots and most other prominent Jacobins, and were content to speak only of Marat and occasionally to drop a hint about Robespierre?

History written in this manner not only does a terrible injustice to historical personalities. It blots out important groups of men who were inspired or guided by them. It obliterates or distorts their ideas, initiatives and deeds. It leaves out of account such large and vital parts of the story that what is left is of necessity fragmentary, inorganic and incomprehensible. In effect, the Party of the Revolution appears in the writings of Stalinist and Khrushchevite historians not as it was in 1917, but as a shadow of the Communist Party of today incongruously projected back, in all its grotesquely bureaucratic respectability, upon the screen of 1917. What vanishes in the process is the heaven-storming defiance and courage and the warm humanity of the revolutionaries of 1917, their broad and open-minded intelligence, their world-embracing ideas and ideals, their fearless strategy, their supple tactics and their great inner-Party freedom. Small wonder that a story and an image so sadly impoverished is incredible, offers little inspiration and teaches no lesson relevant to our present problems and preoccupations.

Yet despite this sad state of contemporary writing on the origins of the Soviet regime, the history of the Russian Revolution is no tabula rasa. In the first decade after their victory the Bolsheviks themselves brought out an immense amount of objective historical documentation, and many actors and eye-witnesses, Russian and foreign, friendly and hostile, described their experiences. Trotsky’s large History of the Russian Revolution stands out as a magnificent and unique monument to the Russia of 1917 – no other great revolution was as fortunate as the Russian to find an historian of genius in one of its supreme leaders. And in recent years a complete outsider, Professor EH Carr, a British historian, has chronicled in many cool, detached and detailed volumes an account of the first years of the Soviet regime. What has been lacking, however, is a work of more modest dimensions that would offer readers of the young generation a reliable introduction to the events of 1917 and enable them to grasp the significance of the Bolshevik upheaval.

Marcel Liebman’s book fills this gap very ably. The author has managed to condense in a short space an enormous amount of vital information about almost every aspect of the historical background and of the Revolution itself; and he has produced a coherent, vivid and exciting narrative. He tells his story with the seriousness it deserves, but also forcefully and with admirable verve. He has succeeded indeed in summarising in an easy and intelligible manner the present state of our historical knowledge in this field. He is popular but he does not talk down to his readers and does not oversimplify the complex issues with which he has had to deal. And while he leaves the reader in no doubt as to where his own sympathies lie – M Liebman writes as a Marxist and a socialist passionately interested in the significance of the Revolution for our epoch – he narrates and analyses the revolutionary process with exemplary truthfulness and objectivity. One might argue with him about this or that point of his interpretation. I personally, for example, would question some of Liebman’s conclusions in his last chapter (’the Fate of the Russian Revolution’), where it seems to me that he underrates certain negative aspects of Stalin’s policy in the aftermath of the Second World War, and that he has not sufficiently gauged the whole depth of the moral-political crisis in the post-Stalinist USSR. But these are bound to be debatable issues in any case; and I find the book as a whole so good and valuable that I have no hesitation in recommending it most warmly and expressing the hope that it will find a very wide and appreciative readership.